With the election of Barack Obama as president, the United States has taken a big step toward becoming what some call a post-racial society. Of course we’re a long way from there yet, but we're closer.
With such progress, it’s tempting to discount the importance of “firsts” for the various racial and ethnic groups that make up this tossed salad called America. The thinking is that there’s no longer a reason to focus on getting African Americans into key positions, or giving Hispanics a place at the table, or seeking to include any number of people in our decision-making processes, since diversity will occur naturally over time.
But that’s not how we got here, and it’s not how we will get where we need to be.
Understand this: In the workplace as well as other environments, selecting someone to be a token minority representative is destructive for everyone. It serves to knock people down, not build them up. The best way to create a more diverse working environment is to broaden the selection pool, then go with the most qualified and capable, regardless of race, color, creed or sexual orientation. That way, the best people rise to the top and the advantages to true diversity take hold.
Not surprisingly, when it involves politics, it’s far more complicated, as Sonic Sotomayor’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court demonstrates. Obama made a smart political move in selecting a woman and a Hispanic, and it will likely pay off in the next election. But the brilliance in his decision was that he picked a highly qualified jurist — the most qualified nominee in years — so no one would be in their right mind to call it a token gesture.
We fully expect Sotomayor to be the nation’s next Supreme Court justice, as well she should. She has a lengthy and distinguished record as a federal judge, having demonstrated an ability to interpret the law and make wise decisions. Any criticism of her so far has been shallow and superficial — especially the one about her being a racist because of a very reasonable remark she made about the life experiences a judge brings to the bench.
Still, because she’s the first Latina ever nominated to the Supreme Court, race enters into the discussion — as well it should, because her selection will mean a lot to Hispanics in America. After all, firsts are important to minorities. They provide role models for the younger generations coming up; they instill pride; and they dilute race as a factor.
Firsts make race less important to those who follow. Now that Obama is president, will color ever mean quite so much in a presidential election? Sotomayor will further dilute the issue, for Hispanics and other ethnic groups.
Sotomayor should not be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice solely because she’s a woman or because she’s Hispanic. Her selection must be based on the superior qualities she brings to the job. But the fact that she’s Latina is an added bonus, and something that will lift people up.
We wouldn’t even be surprised to see some babies being named Sonia right here, within the richly diverse community of Las Vegas, New Mexico.